November 9, 2015

Five religious, political, and ecological leaders gathered at a summit in Vancouver to discuss climate change and poverty.

It was in response to the latest papal encyclical, which concerned the planet and the poor, Laudato Si', and the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.

"One of the major points of the Pope is that the concern for ecology and the concern for justice are necessarily, and not accidentally, connected," said Archbishop Michael Miller.

"To separate one from the other is to be unfaithful to the grammar of creation."

The other headline speaker was Mayor Gregor Robertson, who arrived by bicycle and spoke about his goal to make Vancouver the world's greenest city by 2020.

"We had a goal, by 2020, to have over half of our transportation in sustainable ways: walking, cycling, taking transit," he told 200 audience members in a hall at the John Paul II Pastoral Centre recently.

"We achieved that goal this year. We're already over 50 per cent using sustainable transportation for our trips around Vancouver."

Robertson was one of 60 mayors, and the only Canadian, who gathered in Rome to meet Pope Francis and discuss climate change this summer. While there, Robertson and city leaders from around the world signed an agreement to care for the environment.


"As mayors we commit ourselves to building, in our cities and urban settlements, the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations, and reducing their exposure to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social, and environmental shocks and disasters which foster human trafficking and dangerous forced migration," he read.

"We want our cities and urban settlements to become ever more socially inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable."

The three other speakers at the symposium had various faiths and backgrounds, but agreed with Pope Francis's conclusion that care for the planet and care for the poor are inseparable.

"In the United States in particular, and we see it in Canada as well, all the garbage incinerators, all the toxic waste dumps, are near communities of colour or poor people," said Jay Ritchlin of the David Suzuki Foundation.

In his opening remarks Ritchlin said his organization has been lobbying for an amendment to Canada's constitution that would make clean air, clean water, and clean soil a human right. He also called it a responsibility.

"We have profited and benefited from overusing the planet. We need to find a way to protect our families and the futures of our own children, but that is equal to protecting the futures of all families around the planet."


He wants an increased carbon tax, calling it one of the most successful policies for climate change control. Robertson added that mayors have been calling for that tax to go up, and want to see it fund public transit.

Mary Fontaine, a Presbyterian minister of Cree background, said before anyone can make a real impact, "We have to examine our hearts."

She shared stories from people in native communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan who suffer because of oil spills and other environmental disasters.

"It's discouraging when you see things like people trying to build a pipeline under Burnaby Mountain: just the idea of trying to put a pipeline when you know the earth moves, you know that mountain is going to move, those rocks don't stay still. Who's going to clean up the mess?"

Robertson said the economy relies heavily on fossil fuels and must be "radically transformed" in future pursuits. Luckily, green energy is good for business and has provided 3,000 new jobs in Vancouver over three years.

"The amount of capital being invested in renewable energy for three years in a row now has exceeded the capital going into fossil fuels. It's the biggest business opportunity of our time."

With one eye on the environment, he said another eye should be on the poor and giving those jobs to people who need them.


"There is an opportunity to connect the dots and with transformation to lift people out of poverty, to address the social justice challenges we face, and to heal the planet.

'To try and do any of those in isolation would be an overall failure."

Panellist Hrant Tahanian, the pastor of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic-Orthodox Church in Richmond, said change comes when we "put our money where our right-click is."

He suggested instead of "signing hundreds of petitions," take on "the challenge to only sign petitions we will be willing to go the whole distance for by marching, demanding, and protesting when the cause calls us to."

Tahanian was encouraged by seeing ecologists, civil servants, and people of various religions at the symposium.

"If we were able to get an archbishop, a Presbyterian, an Orthodox, an ecologist, an elected official, many other faith groups together, imagine what we could go if we were able to apply pressure together."

A video recording of the event will be made available online at